The English Phonetic Spelling Alphabet

English Phonetic Alphabet

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The alphabet is probably one of the very first things you learn in any foreign language. The problem is, there isn’t just one alphabet in English. So you most likely know the basic alphabet (A, B, C, D), but possibly not the phonetic spelling alphabet. 

What is the English Phonetic Spelling Alphabet?

Take the following telephone conversation;

Sally:      What is your postcode?

Tim:       SC34 1BJ

Sally:      Start again, F?

Tim:       No, S?

Sally:     OK, SP?

Tim:      No, SC

Sally:    ST? 

Does it seem familiar? When spelling something out loud using an audio device, such as a phone or a microphone, it can be very difficult to understand which letters are being said. This is because so many letters sound the same in the English alphabet. Add to this the bad sound quality and the inability to read the lips and it can take a while to spell something out loud correctly. 

This is a problem that the British Army decided to solve in the 19th century. They invented words to represented letters of the alphabet so letters could be better understood. For example, they would use “pip-emma” for pm (in the afternoon). This idea eventually spread around and others created their own alphabets to understand spelling better. This was particularly popular in military departments and was quickly incorporated into WWI and WWII.

Telephone Call

In the late 1940’s, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set out to create one universal spelling alphabet that could be used to spell around the world.  A linguistics professor worked closely alongside ICAO to create this alphabet. They needed to ensure this spelling alphabet could be easily pronounced by people of all languages,  could be easily understood via radio and have similar spelling in English, French and Spanish. This was adopted by NATO and became the official English phonetic spelling alphabet in 1956.

Let's learn the English Phonetic Spelling Alphabet

How does it work?

When spelling a word or confirming a letter, you can use the word from the English Phonetic Spelling Alphabet instead. For example, to spell “HELLO”, I would say Hotel (H), Echo (E), Lima (L), Lima (L), Oscar (O).

How do you spell your name using the English Phonetic Alphabet? Write this in the comments below!


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